Shepard plays with two ancient opposing rituals in Buried Child: harvest and burial. In the play, these rituals reflect changes in power dynamics between the characters, and foreshadow the instances of death and the possibilities for rebirth. Buried Child takes place over the course of a rainy day and into the next sunny morning. As the play progresses and new information about the family comes to light, the torrential rain can be seen as an almost Biblical washing away of the family’s sinful past.
During the first and second acts, Tilden brings into the house freshly picked corn and carrots that he says are growing out back, even though Dodge insists that nothing has grown there in years. This is representative of “harvest,” which is traditionally seen as a time of renewal (plants dying in order to provide new life through seeds and food). Tilden’s harvest and the rain that seems to cause it can be seen as the undercurrent of change for the family’s bizarre renewal that becomes the play’s climactic event.
The ritual of burial is another crucial part of the play—it’s even in the title. As power shifts between the men in the house, each of them is somehow symbolically “buried” to signify the death of their control. In the first act, after Tilden husks the corn he has found, he spreads the husks over Dodge’s sleeping body. This symbolic burial demonstrates that although still alive, Dodge has no control or power in the family anymore. Later on, Bradley buries Dodge in Shelly’s coat. By doing this, he exerts his dominance over Shelly by taking her protective outer layer, and over Dodge by burying him in the coat. Then, when Bradley’s prosthetic leg is taken from him and he loses all of his power, he buries himself in this same coat.
When Dodge does finally die, this burial ritual is repeated again when Vince, who now assumes the leadership role in the family, covers him in his blanket. With Dodge’s death, more harvest occurs. Halie finally notices that the fields behind the house are full of vegetables, while at the same time Tilden unearths the corpse of the buried child and brings it upstairs to Halie. As the family’s secret is quite literally brought out into the open, the crops grow for the first time in decades, allowing for the possibility of a hopeful future.
Rituals Quotes in Buried Child
Things keep happening while you’re upstairs, ya know. The world doesn’t stop just because you’re upstairs. Corn keeps growing. Rain keeps raining.
Halie: I don’t know what’s come over you, Dodge. I don’t know what in the world’s come over you. You’ve become an evil man. You used to be a good man.
Dodge: Six of one, half a dozen of another.
Halie: You sit here day and night, festering away! Decomposing! Smelling up the house with your putrid body! Hacking your head off till all hours of the morning! Thinking up mean, evil, stupid things to say about your own flesh and blood!
Dodge: He’s not my flesh and blood! My flesh and blood’s buried in the back yard!
We had a baby. He did. Dodge did. Could pick it up with one hand. Put it in the other. Little baby. Dodge killed it… Dodge drowned it… Never told Halie. Never told anybody. Just drowned it… Nobody could find it. Just disappeared. Cops looked for it. Neighbors. Nobody could find it… Finally everybody just gave up. Just stopped looking. Everybody had a different answer. Kidnap. Murder. Accident. Some kind of accident.
Dodge: You forgot? Whose did you think this house was?
Shelly: Mine. I know it’s not mine but I had this feeling.
Dodge: What feeling?
Shelly: The feeling that nobody lives here but me. I mean everybody’s gone. You’re here, but it doesn’t seem like you’re supposed to be. Doesn’t seem like he’s supposed to be either. I don’t know what it is. It’s the house or something. Something familiar. Like I know my way around here. Did you ever get that feeling?